MANAUS, Brazil — An epic game of whipsawing emotions saw the U.S. come back brilliantly from an early deficit only to concede a killer equalizer in the 95th minute that kept the Americans from making history and clinching advancement to the round of 16 on Sunday.
Here are my five quick thoughts on the game:
• An amazing comeback for the U.S., but Portugal’s late equalizer was a gut-punch
The U.S. never fails to take you on an emotional roller-coaster, and Sunday was more of the same, as an epic American comeback was dashed at the death by a Silvestre Varela header in the 95th minute. Jurgen Klinsmann said on Friday that he wished the U.S. had “broken the neck” of Ghana in the opening game of group play after scoring an early goal instead of retreating, and he’ll have the same thoughts about the finish of this game, which felt a bit like a loss considering the U.S. was about to make history and advance to the knockout stage with a 2-1 victory.
In the end, the U.S. should have protected the ball better in running out the clock. But give some credit to Portugal for continuing to push and saving their World Cup with the late goal instead of packing it in. Speaking of which …
• The U.S. never, ever quits
You see it at every World Cup, when teams with big stars and big club paychecks have a mental meltdown the second things start going poorly. (Usually that’s France, though not this year.) But one thing the U.S. will never do is implode at the first sign of trouble. We learned that lesson again on Sunday as the U.S. responded to a fifth-minute Portugal goal by staying calm and possessing the ball far better than the Americans had in their opening-game win against Ghana.
The chances started coming, and even when they didn’t convert them—Michael Bradley’s shot was excruciatingly saved off the line by Ricardo Costa in the 55th minute—they kept their heads up. Then: payoff. Jermaine Jones’s brilliant strike from distance nine minutes later showed a player whose confidence is soaring—and a U.S. team that has overflowing self-belief. When Clint Dempsey put the USA ahead with his 81st-minute goal, you half-expected it to happen. But the inability to close this game out could come back to haunt the Americans.
• Jurgen Klinsmann is pressing the right buttons
Eyebrows were raised when Klinsmann included three inexperienced rookies on his 23-man World Cup squad: DeAndre Yedlin (20), John Brooks (21) and Julian Green (19). But not only did Klinsmann bring them to Brazil, he has deployed two of them without fear in the first two games. Brooks came on at halftime against Ghana and scored the game-winning goal, and on Sunday it was Yedlin’s turn.
Taking advantage of the heat and humidity in Manaus, Klinsmann put Yedlin on the wing (not in his typical fullback spot), and Yedlin’s speed to burn paid off almost immediately. It was Yedlin’s galloping run down the right side and cross that began the sequence on the U.S.’s go-ahead goal. The U.S.’s success here is an eerie parallel to the team’s magical quarterfinal run in World Cup 2002, when coach Bruce Arena started two 20-year-olds (Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley) who returned his faith. This is, in some ways, déjà vu.
• What does this result mean?
It means the U.S. (four points, plus-one goal difference) will clinch a berth in the round of 16 with a win or a tie against Germany (four points) on Thursday in Recife. A U.S. loss, however, would open up the door for Ghana (one point, minus-one goal difference) to advance instead if the Black Stars can beat Portugal and make up the two-goal difference with the United States. Portugal (one point, minus-four goal difference) can still advance, but it would need a U.S. loss and a victory over Ghana that would make up the five-goal difference it has with the Americans. Long story short: There’s a lot to play for on Thursday.
• There’s no margin for error at the World Cup
You can’t play a perfect game, but you can try to minimize your mistakes or at least commit them in a safe part of the field. Geoff Cameron’s shanked clearance directly to Nani just five minutes into the game was one of those mistakes that can define games. Nani hasn’t been very sharp over the past year, but given a chance like that, he made the U.S. pay for it. (His subtle pause to freeze goalkeeper Tim Howard, who fell down, was a thing of beauty.)
Suddenly the U.S. was thrown back in time to World Cup 2010, when early mistakes resulted in early goals conceded in three out of the four U.S. games. Fortunately for the U.S., the team’s strong mentality prevents the Americans from crumbling when things go wrong early. But the inability to protect the lead late, with Bradley's giveaway allowing Cristiano Ronaldo one last chance to make an impact -- and he did, with a peach of an assist -- was another error that just can’t happen at this level.